Technology has opened many doors in the work world over the past few years, and one that is gaining in significance is the option to not leave home at all to go to work. This is telework, or telecommuting. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) estimates that 10 percent of the employees in the private sector, or between 13 and 19 million people, participate in telework arrangements and projects the number of teleworkers will grow as technology continues to improve. Some jobs don't require the employee to be in a particular location, or they require the employee to be out of the office more than in it.
What does telework mean?
Employees who telework (or telecommute) work from home or other locations, connecting with coworkers via computer and telecommunication. According to a 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Labor, workers telecommute in 70 percent of American companies with more than 5,000 employees and in 43 percent of those with fewer than 1,000 employees.
When teleworking, the employee works at a location other than the company's site, usually at home, and is connected to the workplace via digital technology — computer, telephone, e-mail, Internet, and even televideo conferencing. Telework is an ideal option for people who are strongly self-motivated and can work productively without continual supervision. Teleworking can improve productivity by removing common distractions such as office socializing. It also reduces the expenses associated with providing office space for employees.
If your state has significant traffic problems in urban areas, state law may mandate that employers over a certain size participate in commuter reduction efforts. Look into alternative forms of transportation for your employees, such as carpooling or public transportation, or eliminate commuting altogether by supporting telework options.
But out of sight can mean out of mind — and that's not a good thing, especially at work. In the work world, it often means lack of communication, lack of control, and potential disaster. When communication lapses, the benefits of teleworking can become liabilities. Other employees begin to wonder what the teleworker is really doing. They might complain that the work-from-home employee isn't pulling a fair load or has special privileges by not being subject to office policies and standards.
Absence allows people — coworkers and managers alike — to create their own scenarios about what the teleworking employee might be doing. They begin to envision the teleworker lounging around in pajamas and slippers, enjoying a walk in the sun, or running errands at the mall. It's not easy for employees who have never worked from home or a distant location to understand that teleworkers put in the same amount of hours (and usually more) that they would were they in the office.
Some managers find it difficult to have teleworking employees. It's essential for others to know when the teleworker is available and for the teleworker to be available when expected. Ways to keep teleworkers in the loop include these:
Hold regular in-person meetings if the teleworker is in the same city. In most situations, meeting once a week is enough to maintain connections and communication.
Hold regular conference or video calls when the teleworker is working from a distance. This at least keeps the person's voice familiar.
Schedule occasional visits to the office if the teleworker is in another city or state. Even when there is regular voice contact, it helps to keep a face attached to the voice.
Maintain diligent communication about availability and variations from schedules.
Managers should expect employees who are teleworking to let them know when their e-mail is down or they're going to be out for a doctor's appointment — just as they would if they worked in the same office. Likewise, managers need to keep teleworkers informed about schedule changes, shifts in priorities, employee vacations, office meetings, and other matters that teleworkers would know about if they were in the office.
Having employees who telework requires companies to stay current with technology. An employee who is working from a distance is most efficient when he or she has the equipment to support the job tasks. This might mean updating computers and modems or even improving infrastructure elements, such as installing digital phone lines. And, of course, not all jobs will support telework. Telework is not a good option when the job requires close and constant integration with the tasks and projects of other employees.
Managers who want to keep productive, creative employees need to be open to finding solutions that balance individual and company needs. Our society is changing, and so is the business world. People have always had private lives, of course, but until the 1980s, companies functioned as though they wore blinders that kept them from recognizing this. Now things are different. Personal needs are as important as career needs, and people will move around in jobs and among companies until they find what fits. The manager who can be flexible is the manager who will retain top talent — and earn the respect and loyalty of employees as well as superiors.